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On December 10, 2009, the Federal Trade Commission issued a report that examined the incidence of sexually and violently explicit content in online virtual worlds. The report, mandated by Congress, urged operators of virtual worlds to take a number of steps to keep explicit content away from children and teens, and recommended that parents familiarize themselves with the virtual worlds their kids visit.
The report analyzed how easily minors could access explicit content in virtual worlds, and the measures virtual world operators take to prevent minors from viewing it. According to the findings, although little explicit content appeared in child-oriented virtual worlds, a moderate to heavy amount appeared in virtual worlds that are designed for teens and adults.
Virtual worlds are popular with children and adults because they blend 3-D environments with online social networking, allowing users to interact in and shape their own online content. Through avatars, virtual world users socialize, network, play, or even conduct business in graphics-intensive landscapes using text or voice chat, sounds, gestures, and video. Despite the educational, social, and creative opportunities virtual worlds offer, the report found that explicit content exists, free of charge, in online virtual worlds that minors are able to access. In fact, some virtual worlds designed for teens and adults allow — or even encourage — younger children to get around the worlds' minimum age requirements.
The FTC surveyed 27 online virtual worlds — including those specifically intended for young children, worlds that appealed to teens, and worlds intended only for adults. The FTC found at least one instance of either sexually or violently explicit content in 19 of the 27 worlds. The FTC observed a heavy amount of explicit content in five of the virtual worlds studied, a moderate amount in four worlds, and only a low amount in the remaining 10 worlds in which explicit content was found.
Of the 14 virtual worlds in the FTC’s study that were, by design, open to children under age 13, seven contained no explicit content, six contained a low amount of such content, and one contained a moderate amount. Almost all of the explicit content found in the child-oriented virtual worlds appeared in the form of text posted in chat rooms, on message boards, or in discussion forums.
The Commission observed a greater amount of explicit content in worlds that were geared towards teens or adults. Twelve of the 13 virtual worlds in this category contained explicit content, with a heavy amount observed in five worlds, a moderate amount in three worlds, and a low amount in four worlds. Half the explicit content found in the teen- and adult-oriented virtual worlds was text-based, while the other half appeared as graphics, occasionally with accompanying audio.
The Commission’s report also examines the methods virtual world operators use to prevent minors from accessing explicit content. The report describes age screens designed to keep minors from registering with a birth date below a world’s minimum participation age and states that age screening is only a threshold measure that operators should take to prevent youth access. The report details other important steps virtual world operators take to shield youth from explicit content. These steps include separate “adults only” sections (either by subscription or through age verification) designed to keep minors from viewing age-inappropriate [[content], and age-segregation initiatives that provide different experiences for users depending on the birth date they enter so that minors can participate and interact in a world better tailored to them.
In addition, in order to prohibit unwelcome content and preserve their worlds’ intended environments, many operators use community policing measures, such as abuse reporting, flagging, and live moderators, and some use filtering technologies to enforce their community standards.
- Use more effective age-screening mechanisms to prevent children from registering in adult virtual worlds;
- Use or enhance age-segregation techniques to make sure that people interact only with others in their age group;
- Re-examine language filters to ensure that they detect and eliminate messages that violate rules of behavior in virtual worlds;
- Provide more guidance to community enforcers in virtual worlds so they are better able to review and rate virtual world content, report potential underage users, and report any users who appear to be violating rules of behavior; and
- Employ a staff of specially trained moderators who are equipped to take swift action against rule violations.
The report recommends that parents and children become better educated about online virtual worlds, and affirms the FTC’s commitment to ensuring that parents have the information they need to make informed choices.